Road bikes, sometimes called Roadies, exist on a spectrum. Some of them are better for urban adventures while others are great for devil-could-care off-roading agendas. The kind of riding where your stomach drops at least once. But is a road bike the best chariot for riding in mud, gravel, and other unpredictable terrains?
As it turns out, gravel bikes are trending for a reason. Let’s dig into the differences between gravel and roadie bikes.
First Things First: What’s a Gravel Bike?
Gravel bikes have a different geometry than most other kinds of bicycles (but more on that later). The main thing you need to know is that a gravel bike is – as its name reveals – made to be ridden on gravel trails. You can go well beyond the pavement on one of these bikes. Everything from the tires to the frame is built with the understanding that you will take the bike over bumpy, muddy, and otherwise tough terrain. You can cover cobblestone just as easily as your neighborhood bike lane.
Difference #1: Tires
Beach cruisers have tires as skinny as 20 mm. Road bikes typically have tires bigger than this, but since they’re made primarily for pavement, they’re similarly thin. Gravel bikes have tires as wide as 47 mm. This provides more surface area for your tires and promotes a better grip. Your tires will be able to tackle dirt roads, single tracks, and muddy off-roading without risk of slipping.
Gravel bike tires are often tubeless, too. Most other bikes have an inner tube that you inflate to change the pressure in your tires. When you experience a flat, it could be because the tube ruptured – even if there isn’t a hole in the tire itself. Gravel tires are so hearty they often don’t require a tube. You can also ride on lower tire pressure to handle a variety of surfaces.
Bottom Line: When it comes to gravel bikes, there is more of an emphasis on grip and tire width than there is on a road bike.
Difference #2: Brakes
Gravel bikes always have disc brakes. Road bikes may also have disc brakes, but some models use rim brakes. Spoiler: these brakes work by applying pressure to the rim of your bicycle wheels. Rim brakes are fine for most roadies, but they’re just not as powerful as disc brakes. Disc brakes (either hydraulic or mechanical) have a caliper and rotor system, not unlike your car. The calipers press a set of brake pads against the rotor, which is typically in the center of your wheel.
Not only do disc brakes allow you to better control your bike and stop more quickly, but they could be better for your tires. Rim brakes have been known to cause tire blowouts. You don’t want to risk that when you’re on a trail far from home.
Bottom Line: Gravel bikes focus on brakes with powerful stopping capacity, which always means installing disc brakes instead of standard rim brakes.
Difference #3: Frame
The geometry of a gravel bike is also unique. What might not be obvious to a newbie cyclist will stand out for riders who know their way around a bike frame. Compared to road bikes, gravel bicycles have features like:
At first glance, a gravel bike looks just like another bike. Yet, the seasoned bike enthusiasts who design them have made sure they’re longer, stronger, and comfortable enough for all the crazy trips you plan to throw at your new bicycle.
Bottom Line: Road bikes tend to have a better center of gravity due to a longer, lower frame.
Difference #4: Speed
We’re not saying you can’t go fast on a road bike. But you can go really fast on a gravel bike. Because they’re made for more non-traditional surfaces than you can imagine (maybe not quicksand, but almost anything else), they’re designed for adrenaline-seekers. When you have the need for speed, you’re probably looking for a gravel bike.
Even if you only have paved and packed dirt trails on your current “to ride” list… you may want to get a gravel bike for the sheer unparalleled speed and stopping power. Thanks to the lower bottom bracket and long-wheelbase we mentioned earlier, you can even maintain total control at pretty high speeds.
Bottom Line: Speed demons will feel right at home at the helm of a gravel bike, especially if they want to maintain speeds on terrain other than flat straightaways.
Gravel bikes and roadies are both great for adventure seekers. But there’s a reason gravel bikes are trending. If you’re not ready for a gravel bike adventure, you can work your way up by trying a sixthreezero road bike first. Once you get the hang of exploring beyond the pavement, you’ll soon be ready for the type of surfaces that a gravel bike calls for.
Want to take your new roadie or gravel bike to a place you’ve never been? Join our Journey Club to uncover biking locations around the world and connect with other cyclists.